Bruno Bettelheim Had Infinite Patience with Children, but Not with the Ravages of Old Age

updated 04/02/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/02/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

In the end, after devoting himself to answering some of life's most difficult questions, he left one of the biggest ones behind. Bruno Bettelheim was a brilliant psychologist who could read a child's troubled heart from across a room in one moment and quote Montaigne in the next. He was also a survivor of two Nazi concentration camps who suggested that some victims might have survived had they not regressed into childhood forms of behavior because of the brutality of the camps. So when Bettelheim, 86, alone and ailing in a Maryland nursing home, committed suicide two weeks ago by placing a plastic bag over his head, his dismaying leave-taking sent the psychoanalytic community, and admirers everywhere, scrambling for an explanation.

Clues at first seemed puzzling. Born in Sigmund Freud's Vienna in 1903 to middle-class Jewish parents, Bettelheim had by age 14 immersed himself in the great psychoanalyst's writings. After training as a psychologist at the University of Vienna, he focused on autism, a disorder in which the afflicted child withdraws into his own private world. When Germany annexed Austria in 1938 Bettelheim's work was interrupted: He spent a year in camps at Buchenwald and Dachau, gaining his release largely through the intervention of Eleanor Roosevelt and New York Gov. Herbert Lehman.

In 1939 he came to the U.S. and two years later married Gertrud Weinfeld, a social worker who had also fled Austria. He joined the faculty of the University of Chicago in 1944. There, at the Sonia Shankman Orthogenic School, Bettelheim embarked on his life work with children whom society had written off as hopeless.

As sensitive as he was to the needs of disturbed youth, he was often brutal to adults. He would mercilessly berate his own students in psychiatry. More damaging, perhaps, was his effort to keep parents away from their disturbed children. At the time, Bettelheim thought that "schizophrenogenic mothers" were responsible for their autistic children's behavior. Now it is widely believed that autism is a biological, not a psychological, disorder.

But Bettelheim was never one to hedge an opinion or sidestep controversy. In the '70s he attacked student protesters, comparing them to young Hitler supporters rebelling against the authority of the pre-Nazi regime. The subject of authority returned in his best-known book, The Uses of Enchantment, in which he defended the violence in many fairy tales as providing children with "clear-cut lines between right and wrong." Says Peter Loewenberg, a psychoanalyst and UCLA history professor: "He was very tough. That's one of the things I cherished about him."

Tough with others, yet vulnerable, apparently, to a despair within himself. In 1984 Gertrud, his wife of 43 years, died. The loss, say his friends, was devastating. "He went downhill after that," says friend and colleague Rudolf Ekstein. "You could even see it in his face." For a time, Bettelheim lived with the eldest of his three children, Ruth, 48, also a psychologist, in her Santa Monica house. But difficulties between them led him to move to a nearby seaside condominium.

Then in 1987 he suffered a stroke. Says Berkeley-based psychotherapist Karen Zelan, 55, co-author with Bettelheim of On Learning to Read: "He told me, 'I can't think anymore.' For a man so used to vigorous thought, that was the greatest threat of all." Two months ago he decided to enter a retirement home in Silver Spring, Md. He wasn't prepared for his loss of independence and soon regretted the move.

Still, friends see Bettelheim's suicide not as a surrender, but as a final act of mastery over his life. "He was extraordinarily frail," says his longtime friend and literary agent Theron Raines, who saw him a few days before his death. "He didn't want to be a burden on anybody." Adds Hans Steiner, chief of psychiatry at Children's Hospital at Stanford University: "He saw what was in store for him and didn't want to stick around for it. That certainly fits in with his character. He was a feisty old man, a fighter."

—William Plummer, Maria Wilhelm in Washington, D.C., Nancy Matsumoto in Santa Monica

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